Joshua Eyre talked to MPA candidate Ian Sprouse about recent developments in The Gambia.
Joshua Eyre: Could you tell us a little bit about why The Gambia has featured so prominently in the news over the past month or two?
Ian Sprouse: Unfortunately, The Gambia doesn’t make a lot of international headlines; however, it has topped the news recently because of a disputed election. Former President Yahya Jammeh, who has been the president for the past 22 years, was voted out in an unprecedented and unforeseen election outcome, with an opposition party winning the popular vote. This election result is a surprise in The Gambia because a number of organisations – especially human rights organisations – consider Jammeh to have been a dictator. Even though he’s technically democratically elected, there have been numerous reputable accusations of election tampering and unfair elections.
JE: So The Gambia does have elections periodically, with opposition parties, but Jammeh and his administration have been known to meddle in the process?
IS: They do have elections. This is one of the reasons the international community has had their hands tied when attempting to address human rights violations. Even though there are serious allegations of unfair elections, it’s difficult to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) election observers boycotted the 2011 Presidential elections on the grounds that the political environment wasn’t conducive to a free and fair election.
JE: Even if these elections haven’t been democratically run in the past and though opposition parties may have received more votes than the official numbers would suggest, has Jammeh generally been a popular president through his rule?
IS: It’s hard to generalise the population’s true feelings because Jammeh ruled the country for the past two decades with what was essentially an iron fist. Dissenters have been known to disappear. Journalists have been arbitrarily detained, often on trumped up charges. I wrote an article for LSE’s Africa blog discussing Jammeh’s widely criticised human rights record. With this said, many Gambians will say that the country has become more developed under his rule. However, discontent started to brew as Jammeh’s rhetoric became increasingly inflammatory. In 2016, protests calling for electoral reform – an unusual event in The Gambia – were responded to with force from the government, and top opposition political leaders were arrested. One leader died in custody. I believe this, in addition to his fiery rhetoric against other tribes, was the tipping point.
JE: What is Jammeh’s political ideology? What were his focuses while he was in power?
IS: His main focus has always been on developing The Gambia; unfortunately, however, the country still remains one of the poorest in Africa. Jammeh was perhaps one of the world’s most unique head of state. Jammeh was fiercely independent in the sense that he often rebuked so-called foreign “interference”, especially with respect to human rights issues in the country. Indeed, he has kicked out United Nations, European Union and United States diplomats in response to criticism. As I see it, Jammeh aligned himself and focused on relationships with whoever was bringing in unconditional foreign aid. Aid from Western powers may have proven too troublesome, hence realignment to other interests.
JE: Adama Barrow won the election – and we’ll talk a bit more about the election itself in a moment – but first can you tell us what he’s offering to the country that differentiates himself from what Jammeh has offered?
IS: Barrow appears to offer Gambians an alternative from the status quo. Gambians have been under Jammeh’s rule for over 20 years. The country is still poor. There are massive inequalities between wealthier Gambians, often associated with Jammeh’s administration, and the rest of the country. Barrow has promised to give the people more of a voice than they had under Jammeh. He has promised to investigate Jammeh’s administration for accountability. Indeed, Jammeh was becoming more intolerant of other tribes in The Gambia, becoming more intolerant of homosexuals, more intolerant of political opposition. A lot of people looked towards Barrow as a better avenue for development, peace and prosperity for themselves.
JE: So with the election, Barrow won, Jammeh seemed initially to say this is cool, I’ll step down, then he changed his mind… Is that an accurate way of putting it?
IS: Yes, that’s an accurate way of putting it. He seemed to accept the results – even before they were all in. However, he went back a few days later and said he didn’t accept the results and accused the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of errors and tampering with the election. I found this quite interesting because I, along with many others, didn’t view the IEC as entirely independent from Jammeh’s influence.
JE: Then Barrow went into exile until ECOWAS stepped up and talked Jammeh into accepting the result, helped by Senegal sending in some troops?
IS: With the situation becoming increasingly contentious and Jammeh refusing to accept Barrow’s victory despite calls from ECOWAS, the African Union, the US, the UK and the EU, Barrow was evacuated to Senegal – like many other people in the country – for his own safety. There were a lot of reports of soldiers aggressively targeting Barrow’s supporters and other opposition activists for arrest. When it appeared that Jammeh was preparing to entrench himself as President, ECOWAS and the African Union began pushing hard for Jammeh to step down. They sent several presidents to mediate and call on Jammeh to step down. However, these attempts were unsuccessful and ECOWAS essentially called on Jammeh to step down with dignity or they would resort to military intervention. There were last minute meditation efforts by the President of Mauritania shortly before the deadline; however, it proved unsuccessful. ECOWAS forces did actually enter The Gambia, but halted their advance while talks were continued. Ultimately, Jammeh did accept a deal and left the country and, according to some reports, taking millions of dollars with him and luxury cars, including a Bentley and Rolls-Royces.
JE: Where do you see it going from here?
IS: I would say it looks hopeful for The Gambia. A lot of people are looking forward to seeing a new face in power. Jammeh’s presidency has been shrouded in controversy, and now we can hope for a better Gambia. I believe that many stakeholders on the continent and beyond are looking forward to a hopefully more amicable relationship with the new President. Just a few days ago, Barrow returned to The Gambia and was received by massive crowds who welcomed him by lining the streets from the airport to Banjul, some in tears of joy for what they see a real change. I look forward to seeing positive change come out of this transition and new opportunities arising for Gambians, who can now live their lives without fear of arrest and torture.
Ian Sprouse is a first-year Master of Public Administration student at LSE. Before joining LSE, Ian was a Political and Economic Intern for the U.S. Department of State at the U.S. Embassy in Banjul, The Gambia. Prior to the State Department, Ian was a Veterinary Epidemiologist Volunteer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, Italy.